Handel oratorio fails to catch fire

Athalia by Handel, Britten-Pears Young Artist Programme and Britten-Pears Baroque Orchestra, The Maltings, Snape Proms, August 17Snape Proms are marvellously varied.

Athalia by Handel, Britten-Pears Young Artist Programme and Britten-Pears Baroque Orchestra, The Maltings, Snape Proms, August 17

Snape Proms are marvellously varied. This week I've heard a brilliant gipsy violinist, a gospel choir and a superb symphony orchestra from Sweden (under the Venezuelan Gustavo Dudamel - undoubtedly the most exciting conductor since Simon Rattle). Handel's oratorio Athalia rounded off the week. Written in 1733 for an aborted honorary degree ceremony in Oxford, it made Handel a lot of money at the time but is frankly not in the same league as later oratorios such as Belshazzar (heard the previous night at the London Proms) or Samson (not to mention Messiah).

All the same, it's well worth the occasional outing and Richard Egarr conducted a spirited performance at the Maltings on Sunday night. The Britten-Pears Baroque Orchestra, close on 30 strong, were clearly enjoying themselves and it was fun to see an array of natural trumpets and horns on the platform, plus recorders and wooden oboes.

No names in the programme so no way to salute the solo cellist. The continuo players looked good, too, but it was hard to hear the pungent details one expected.

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The chorus is what gives Athalia its class and Snape's chorus had been working over the previous ten days at masterclasses given by Michael Chance and Rita Dams. They stood in a single curved row behind the orchestra. Eighteen voices are not enough to do justice to Handel's double choruses in eight parts; spread out in an arc the sound is diffused where it should be a solid block. The six soloists emerged from the choir and this made for a boring procession out to the front and back, sometimes for just a few lines of recitative.

A narrator would have kept us in touch with the story, a dramatic oratorio, based on a Racine play, which tells of the overthrow of tyrannical queen Athalia, who worships Baal, and the restoration to the Temple of Jerusalem of the Jewish religion. To be blunt it is quite a confusing tale and no text or surtitles were provided; in the over-generous Maltings acoustic it was often impossible to make out the sense of what was being sung - the tenor and bass (James Geer and Matthew Cassils) being more comprehensible than the upper voices. Mezzo Catherine MacPhie certainly made something of the title role, though like most of her colleagues she was too tied to her score to match the impact of the band. Canadians Mireille Asselin and Sarah Barnes took the two soprano roles and a Dutchman, Lester Lardenoye, sang the counter tenor role of the high priest. Overall verdict: a worth-while student experiment but not something to set the Alde on fire.

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Humphrey Burton

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